A police procedural to kill you stone dead. Furthermore, it's a true story. I found it a bit of a struggle in the first half, but later it grabbed me by the throat.
It's based on a real South Korean serial killer case, with the original murders taking place in the city of Hwaseong between 1986 and 1991. Women were raped and killed. What makes this film different to any other you've seen is the fact that South Korea in 1986 was a military dictatorship and the police's main function at the time seems to have been beating up demonstrators. There's a detective from Seoul (Sang-kyung Kim) who actually seems to have his head together, but the local plods (Kang-ho Song and chums) are terrifying. They torture confessions out of suspects and declare the case closed. They tell Kim to shut up when he finds incontrovertible evidence to show that the real killer's still on the loose. They trust fortune tellers and unsubstantiated rumours. They're so brutal that Kim's introduction to the team is a kicking because Song happened to have been passing and jumped to the conclusion that he was a rapist.
If you're a serial killer, you're safe. No need to worry about a thing, unless perhaps Kim's sniffing around. However if you're retarded or a fantasist, you're in trouble.
The worst of it is that these heavy-handed tactics aren't just useless, but actively harmful. If your first move on finding a suspect is to torture a confession out of him, what can this possibly gain? The confession is worthless. You've just nuked any chance you had of learning possibly vital information. The funniest bit in the film (in an appalling way) comes when we learn that our heroes could have cracked the case about ten minutes into the film if they hadn't been thinking they were Conan the Barbarian.
These idiots are why I found the first half heavy going. Oi, you. Stop it. That's not going to help. Bloody hell, are you really that stupid? I lost interest in what the movie appears to be about (a serial killer investigation) because Song and co. are as likely to catch their man as they are to sprout wings and fly. (Kim might yet manage it, though.)
However despite appearances, this isn't a movie about catching a serial killer. Instead it's about these ghastly policemen and the personal journeys they go through in tackling an investigation beyond their abilities. Are they going to drag themselves out of their moral pit, or else allow themselves to be sucked in? This is very well done. This isn't just brutality and shock material for its own sake. Both Song and Kim have personal journeys to go on that will shake their world (and yours). This film was adapted from a 1996 stage play about the same subject and you can see that this material would been a knockout there.
The performances have been praised, especially Song's. He's my favourite Korean actor currently working, thanks to films like this and The Host, Thirst
, The Foul King, Joint Security Area
and The Good The Bad The Weird
. Here you should hate him... but you don't. He has a bone-headed kind of integrity, albeit harnessed to a moral code wildly at variance with any you'd recognise, and he sticks to his guns no matter how idiotic. "I'm thinking the killer can't have any hair down there... a total baldie." He's an incompetent monster, yet Song impossibly makes him almost likeable and gradually takes him over the course of the movie from lumpen thoughtlessness to a state of self-awareness. It's not a showy performance, but Song's carrying the movie on his shoulders and not even letting you see him doing it.
You'll also want to remember the writer/director: Joon-ho Bong. This is his second film after Barking Dogs Never Bite
, although admittedly I personally found that too cruel and random to like. Memories of Murder though went big, both domestically and internationally, and he's since followed it up with The Host (Korean monster movie mega-hit that appeared on international critics' Best of the Year lists) and Mother (sounds a bit like a companion piece to Memories of Murder, actually). There are film geeks calling him one of the best directors in the world right now, not just in Korea.
Bong has also said that his script was influenced by Alan Moore's From Hell and that he was "a bit disappointed with the Hughes brothers' film of it."
Is it perfect? No. Like I said, I struggled in the first half. It's the same problem I had with Barking Dogs Never Bite
, a slight feeling of directionlessness. The difference though is that film was unsuccessful at the box office, while this was the biggest domestic hit of the year and (with The Host) one of Quentin Tarantino's twenty favourite films made since 1992. It's the same formula of black farce and bad things happening for no fair reason, but here Bong's found a devastating framework to do it in. Besides, I only perceived that directionlessness in the first half. The second half I couldn't look away from. There's a ton of good stuff here, from the unique premise to the tragic story of Sang-kyung Kim and even the cinematography. Bong set a record for the most locations used in any Korean film to date, trying to evoke rural South Korea of the 1980s.
I've seen this compared with David Fincher's Zodiac, except that the people doing the comparisons think that Memories of Murder is better. It's a shocking film, which is something you don't often get these days. It really happened.
"I beat you because I care for you."
"My eyes can't be fooled. One look and I know."